Polish-Belarusian Relations Freezing Again

By Marcin Sobczyk

Relations between Belarus and Poland are freezing again after the Belarusian authorities launched a new crackdown against the Polish minority leaders it doesn't recognize in an attempt to strengthen an ethnic Polish organization filled with leaders that Poland doesn't recognize.

Recent days brought a number of arrests of ethnic Poles as Belarus tried to take over their organization together with its property, while Poland could only watch helplessly.

In a country ruled by an authoritarian president where crops and the economy grow as commanded, the government tends to keep non-governmental organizations under its boot, so it's only natural that the state will want to hand-pick NGO leaders.

Besides, anything Polish is suspicious to some in the eastern territories that once formed the Polish Crown or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

A good illustration of those suspicions is the strongly negative reaction in Eastern Europe when Poland began giving ethnic Poles in Belarus or Ukraine identity cards that give them the right to work in Poland without a work permit, along with other rights normally reserved for Polish citizens and other European Union nationals. Even some politicians in neighboring EU member Lithuania had problems with the initiative.

Belarus has resented the Polish ethnic movement that remained outside of its control and kept arresting the movement's leaders for several days at a time or giving them fines for crimes like "disturbing the work of a state-owned television crew" (this in 2006).

After a 1996 referendum that the West refused to accept, for a number of years the top Belarusian leadership was banned from entering EU territory. In recent months the Polish foreign minister, in an attempt to make a historic breakthrough, led the EU's efforts for the normalization of relations with Belarus. Some visa restrictions were lifted and Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko was allowed to travel within the EU once more.

Now it's becoming increasingly clear Poland and others in the EU want that normalization more than Belarus does.

Poland hoped that by reaching its hand to Lukashenko it would convince him to open up more. But, according to Belarusian opposition, the soft-spoken western style of diplomacy that hopes goodwill gestures will be reciprocated can't be effective in former Soviet republics. To the post-Soviet mentality, such gestures are a sign of weakness.

Now it's the EU's foreign representative Baroness Ashton to the rescue. I can already see Lukashenko tremble.


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